'Fair trade' solution to learning a new language

By Dave Lee
BBC World Service

image captionGareth Mitchell learns French using Glovico, a language learning service

They say the best way to learn a language is to get stuck in, immersing yourself in a culture in a way that means you have no choice other than to adapt.

Human interactions, with all the real life quirks which make language so interesting, are essential if you are to become fluent.

In the past, you would have to fly out to various corners of the world to achieve such a level of immersion.

But now, in our ever-shrinking, networked world, the chance to learn new languages direct from the communities that speak it naturally is just a few clicks away.

Glovico.org calls itself a "fair-trade" language learning website, empowering people in the developing world to offer language learning opportunities to students in developed countries.

Supported by the Sainsbury Management Fellows' Society, Glovico signs up language teachers in places such as Peru and the Ivory Coast, and uses Skype to bring pupil and teacher together.

For an hourly fee of around 8 euros, the language-learner gets a one-on-one video tuition session. Glovico is a non-profit organisation, thus takes only a small amount - 2 euros - of the fee to maintain administration and infrastructure costs.

The rest is sent straight to the teacher by international money transfer. Glovico says the money earned from lessons is a big contribution to a teacher's monthly income.

"This is a fantastic opportunity for fair trade," said Phil Westcott, who represents the site in the UK and North America.

"As they build up a reputation and their ratings from the students improve, it will give an open market opportunity for these people to increase the amount that they charge for their lessons."

The rating system allows the site to crowd-source feedback to benefit potential students looking for a teacher. The tutors are rated on such factors as timeliness, competence and accent - as well as connection quality.

To ensure the quality of the teaching can be trusted, Glovico uses representatives in the respective countries to vet the teachers.

"We currently have operations in Senegal and Ivory Coast for French teachers and also in Guatemala, Peru and El Salvador for the Spanish teachers," explained Mr Westcott.

Virtual learners

Glovico is not the first to bring language learning to the web.

Language Lab is an online English-learning website which launched in 2005. Built on the once hugely-hyped Second Life platform, it aims to place students in a virtual environment which emulates real-life.

image captionIn Language Lab, learners enter a virtual English city

"Our teachers are all usually English teachers in normal schools who are picking up wages by coming home at night and doing a class," said Michael Lee, head of marketing for the site.

"People are immersed in a completely English city - there's everything from airports, to hospitals, to emergency scenarios. You can utilise and learn English in a way you'd previously never realised."

One particular scenario involved students being inside a burning building, and having to work together - using English - to evacuate and deal with the problem.

The site currently has around 600 active, paying members. But they say they expect this to grow massively as they are now taking on corporate clients - businesses and authorities who need to quickly teach English to a large group of employees, but can not afford to send people to lessons or for trips abroad.

Linda Parker, director of the Association for Language Learning, is enthusiastic about the possibilities of learning languages online.

"There are lots of different ways of learning languages.

"Different people learn in different ways. I think these kinds of virtual environments are really great, really good. Kids in school respond very well to these sorts of approaches."

She says that if a language is to be truly mastered it has be studied the old-fashioned way, but for learning enough to visit and enjoy other countries, learning online is great - particularly for people who are perhaps not keen on an intimidating classroom environment.

"It takes away some of that anxiety about language learning that people can sometimes experience in when they're in classroom.

"Anything that brings language alive, whether that's in the real world or the virtual world, is a good thing."

More on this story

Around the BBC

Related Internet Links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.